The family farm: Ashby to help lead farmers in workshop on estate planning

Farmer Dan Ashby, left, and Alice Rhea, a UT Extension farm management specialist, spend a few minutes on Ashby’s farm.

Farmer Dan Ashby, left, and Alice Rhea, a UT Extension farm management specialist, spend a few minutes on Ashby’s farm.

Farmers need a plan for what they want to happen to their property and operation when they either die, retire or decide to transition out of that line of work.

That’s the idea behind a new workshop planned for Thursday, Oct. 29, at the University of Tennessee. The program is being sponsored by the University of Tennessee Extension Service.

Blount County farmer Dan Ashby is one of the speakers at the workshop. He will not only speak from knowledge, but from family experience.

Ashby, a farmer who also works as a pilot for United Airlines, said the workshop is for folks who don’t have a management plan about what they’re going to do if they get hurt, grow old or just don’t want to farm anymore. “Many folks do not have a game plan,” he said. “We’re going to be talking about having a plan.”

Ashby and his wife, Marie, bought the former Steele family farm in 2001. The Steele family had owned the farm since 1792.

Ashby said there will be discussions about how farmers can, among other options, pass their operation on to another farmer, do a conservation easement, sell it or donate it to the university.

Ashby speaks from experience his family endured. There were lessees who farmed his family’s land for several years. When Ashby’s dad returned home from World War II, like many other returning GI’s, he opted to go to college and pursue another career.

The lessees eventually challenged the family in court and got part of the farmland. “There was no one there to take care of it,” he said. “Our farm was lost because there was not succession plan. My grandparents never expected that they would not be able to farm.”

Marie Ashby came from a situation where the family dairy farm was lost due to internal family differences between relatives.

Ashby said teaching young farmers about the business and the necessity of having a plan for the future of the farm is important to the future of farming in general. “If you don’t understand leverage and equity, you can not operate a farm,” he said. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, banks are not going to lend you money.”

Alice Rhea, a UT Extension farm management specialist working out of Blount County, said the workshop about preserving family farmland is important because often families are ripped apart when disagreements arise over farmland left in a will.

“You can buy another piece of property but you can’t buy another family. It’s important to maintain the strong family bonds,” she said.

Dr. Tim Cross, dean of UT Extension, encourages producers to attend one of the events. “Many farm families work hard for a lifetime to generate income and accumulate land, machinery and financial assets to support their family,” he said. “It is crucial that these families learn how to plan for the future of their estates, ensuring that their family continues to be taken care of in the future.”

The workshops are planned to ease the burden of farmland estate planning. Along with the UT Extension department, partnering organizations include the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation, The Land Trust for Tennessee and USDA Rural Development. Estate planning workshops will be held in each of the grand divisions of the state.

Rhea said the workshop is more than just a discussion about wills.

“Having a succession plan is more than having a will. It’s a management plan - passing wisdom and values on to the next generation,” she said. “I think it’s an issue because of the age of farmers and also because it is a lot harder to make a living on a farm today.”

Many farmers have second incomes from other careers. “The further removed people get from the farm, the less knowledge they have about agriculture in general and preserving the land,” she said.

While learning and using new technology is important, often younger individuals are not familiar with the management of the farm, just the labor part of the operation. “We need to begin to teach not just production but management issues,” she said.

Rhea said the program also will show how farmers wishing to transition out of farming can pass the operation on to farmers who are just beginning in the business. “They could be total strangers or family members,” she said.

Rhea said the program is brand new to the state. The UT Extension Service surveyed farmers across the state and learned that education about estate planning and succession planning was as an area of interest that farmers wanted them to address.

The UT Extension Service received a $49,000 grant from the Southern Regional Risk Management Education Center out of Texas (USDA CSREES Funds) for the program.

“We’re putting together a 200-page workbook to help them look at factors of planning. This is a one-time workshop. We’re doing this as a kickoff to other county workshops to be held across the state,” she said. “It will give a brief overview. We’ll have attorneys there to answer questions.”

Many farmers don’t want to talk about this issue because it implies the topic of a loved one’s death. “Because of this, many refuse to even open a dialogue with family members about what to do with their farm. The workshop will give farmers the tools to start the conversation,” she said.

The fee is $25. This pays for the resource workbook, lunch and refreshments. Check in at the University Center, Oct. 29, is at 8:30 a.m. The program begins at 9 a.m. and wraps at 4 p.m. Online registration is available at

Dan said another issue important to the future of farming in Tennessee is how underfunded the UT Extension Service.

Ashby said he has toured the state, speaking to groups about the industry. Extension services at other university systems across the Southeast are stronger than what the University of Tennessee funds its Extension Service, Ashby said. “We’ve allowed our Agriculture School and Extension Service to deteriorate. I don’t see how we’re going to continue to have an agriculture business in this state if we don’t have an agriculture extension service. Farms of our state are the backbone of economic development. It starts with the state’s farmers,” he said.

Cross explained the importance of the extension service. “Clearly, eating is fundamental to our society and to that extent, rural communities are a big part of the production of food and fiber in this country. We provide education for farmers, families and youth in the community,” he said.

Cross said as a department they would prefer not to have budget reductions but that is part of the current economic climate each department is facing. “Do we feel we’re being treated worse than others? I don’t think so. I believe we’re doing our share and, given the economy, over time, we should look to see if we are doing enough to support the youth and families through education,” he said. “As the economy improves, I hope we get to review our priorities for funding programs that provide for education in these rural areas.”

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